I don’t know what it is like at the Volkswagen offices as of late. But it must smell a lot like a funeral. A few weeks back, the news broke that VW had purposely tried to defraud their customers and governments with the environmental claims of some of their vehicles. Then they lied about doing it.

Marketing experts (like this one responsible for the Jack in the Box turnaround) believe it will take the brand decades to regain the any form of trust with consumers.

But, today, the brand is dead.

VW-Think-Small

And what killed the brand is not a lack of marketing. VW has, since the 60s, created some of the most inspired ad campaigns. I have watched some of their ads with jealousy – wishing I was the one who came up with them.

The problem is that good marketing cannot save your brand. Doing all the right things: content creation, solid messaging, creative advertising, novel concepts, great products. None of it is a defense against the one thing that will kill a brand: a lack of empathy.

If executives at VW had thought through how it would feel to customers, then it suddenly becomes harder to lie. But if you keep on the road of believing your own hype, it becomes easier to compromise your principles. And that kind of compromise can kill a brand.

At the root of empathy is “being there” – allowing your thoughts to be fully present with another person. Empathy is receiving a person. It is a much different posture than most brands allow. Marketing agencies have made fortunes by instructing on what must be said and purchasing the medium to carry that message. But what of receiving? What if it was the role of your marketing to do more than shout your brand message? What if you allowed your customers to join with you?

If you are game for refreshing your approach to your marketing, I implore you to try this one-on-one listening exercise. This is going to seem touchy feely, but we could use more touchy feely these days.

Try this exercise.

  1. Ask a friend to have lunch with you and tell him you will be doing a listening exercise.
  2. Turn your phone off.
  3. Ask the person across from you: Describe a moment in your life when you felt more brave than you thought you could.
  4. Your friend will begin speaking. When your friend is speaking, listen. Do not talk. Do not relate it to you. Just soak up content. Watch the way he tells the story. Pay attention to how it makes him feel.
  5. When it appears he is at a stopping point, you may say, “What I hear you saying is… (repeat back what he told you and include what you believe to be the most important details). Then ask: “Is that right?” If he says, “No” Then go back to Step 4. If he says, “Yes” then move on.
  6. Relate to your friend on an emotional level. That sounds something like this. “I imagine you felt brave and scared at the same time.”
  7. Thank your friend for sharing a piece of his life with you.
  8. Do not share anything about you unless you are asked. Order your food and be grateful that you know your friend even more.
  9. If you can do this with any amount of success, your lunch calendar will fill up quickly. But, more importantly, you will have soaked up an exercise in empathy.

I entreat you to allow this mindset to percolate into your company’s marketing rituals. Listen to your customers. Remember them when you make decisions. Receive their comments and ideas (the good and the bad) and move humbly forward.

Article written by

account executive/branding guru/runner of many miles